Pushing her voice to surge and sparkle in ways it just doesn’t want to, Sheryl Crow tries and tries to manage the choruses of “Tomorrow Never Dies,” the smart neoclassic James Bond ballad she and producer Mitchell Froom wrote for the new 007 movie. “Darling, you’ve won,” Ms. Crow purrs like a cat in one verse. “It’s no fun/ Martinis, girls and guns.” Ms. Crow and Mr. Froom make an odd choice to follow in the footsteps of big-lunged showboaters like Matt Monro (“From Russia With Love,” 1964) and Shirley Bassey (“Goldfinger,” 1965; “Diamonds Are Forever,” 1971; “Moonraker,” 1979), not to mention film music hotshot John Barry. She is a singer-songwriter, perhaps the sharpest reader of the current pop marketplace, who broke a few years back with hummable tunes full of old Rolling Stones and Faces guitar licks; he is a Los Angeles-based roots conceptualist who specializes in quaint instrumentation and general arrangement crankiness. Neither would seem bent on achieving the supremely eventful smoothness of Bond songs and scoring dreamed up during the 60′s by Mr. Barry. Lucky for them because, their witty tune notwithstanding, they don’t.
Ms. Crow and Mr. Froom certainly try to Americanize a Bond ballad, though, which is telling, given that for the past decade 007 music and United States audiences haven’t been close. True, in glitzy 1985, Duran Duran, the most seriously Bond-influenced pop operation in history, shot to No. 1 with “A View to a Kill,” a year after Sheena Easton had exhaled solemnly throughout “For Your Eyes Only,” which reached No. 4. Yet subsequent singles like A-Ha’s techno-pop “The Living Daylights” (1987) and Gladys Knight’s dramatic “License to Kill” (1989), as good as both were, flopped. It had been a while since Paul McCartney & Wings (“Live and Let Die,” 1973) and later Carly Simon (“Nobody Does It Better,” 1977) had successfully rocked things up for the now 35-year-old film series based on writer Ian Fleming’s laconic secret agent.
As Kingsley Amis, a big Fleming admirer, wrote in his 1965 book The James Bond Dossier , “Bond is not what they call a rounded character.” So, once film producers Albert R. Broccoli and Harry Saltzman got hold of the novels, the music became as important as the casting. Enter John Barry.
“John Barry is the guv’nor,” said David Arnold, the 35-year-old English composer of the Independence Day score and producer of Björk’s “Play Dead” who wrote the soundtrack for Tomorrow Never Dies . “He and Sean Connery were 100 percent responsible for the success of those films. With Sean, you had the most obviously iconographic character you could have for James Bond. And then John Barry made it a Bond film. Without Barry, they would have been action movies.”
Mr. Arnold’s score, a golden mean of Bond instrumentalism delivered with its own bold and never academic touch, falls into three parts. The first, which affectionately quotes many of Mr. Barry’s more rakish riffs, sideways marches and syncopated crescendos, is itself iconographic. “I really did approach it as a fan,” he said. “When James Bond does James Bond things, you’ve got to hear James Bond music. With this series, you don’t want girls to be unlike Bond girls, you don’t want the cars not to have gadgets.” The second part eases into the realm of drum loops and rock-accented electronic music. And the third-not collected on Music From the Motion Picture “Tomorrow Never Dies ” (A&M)-delves into Asian music, often driven by Chinese State Circus percussion.
Mr. Arnold expects some listeners to pounce on his Barry borrowings. “I’m sure there will be people who will say that it’s just a kind of Barry imitation,” he said. “I don’t think it is. I tip my hat to what John did. It’s like Pierce Brosnan: I’m sure he saw Goldfinger when he was 11 and came out of the theater and said, ‘I want to be James Bond.’ Thirty-odd years later, he gets a chance to do what he’s dreamt about. For me, it’s 25.”
At the end of the Tomorrow Never Dies soundtrack, K.D. Lang sings “Surrender,” which Mr. Arnold co-wrote and produced. It’s the other side of the world entirely from Ms. Crow’s strivings and Mr. Froom’s damp electric guitar lines and musty orchestrations. (Mr. Arnold had nothing to do with that song; nevertheless it opens the album.) With Ms. Lang’s million-dollar pipes and Mr. Arnold’s eerie grasp of 90′s Goldfinger -isms, they sound like they’ve aced this four-minute finale just before jetting off to save Luxembourg. The productions Mr. Arnold mounts, working with other singers and bands, on Shaken and Stirred: The David Arnold James Bond Project (Sire) are even better. Taken together, these tracks of rockers and post-techno musicians singing and rearranging Bond songs add up to the year’s richest straight-up pop record production.
“The Bond songs conveniently ignored anything that was going on in popular music around the time that they were being written,” Mr. Arnold said. “You would never have conceived of something like ‘You Only Live Twice’ being written with reference to what the Beatles or Bob Dylan or the Who or the Doors were doing. They existed in their own little universe.” Everything came out of John Barry’s swinging head, responding directly to the demands of the films; Bond music developed as the work of someone who had flirted heavily with the notion of whether rock-and-roll could exist in the form of snazzy, guitar-led, old-style combos instead of the multitracked configuration of sounds that the big beat became. (For pre-Bond proof, consider Scamp/Caroline’s 1996 John Barry: The EMI Years .)
“For From Russia With Love ,” Mr. Arnold notes, “he’d written ‘James Bond Is Back.’ It became the stamp of the brass-led, sort of sexy, almost big-band sound with what was then called a ‘rock-and-roll combo.’ By 1963, the craft and the style had matured to the Goldfinger standard. It was very idiosyncratic. It didn’t owe anything to anyone. John was listening to Stan Kenton. He wasn’t listening to the Beatles.”
Shaken and Stirred realizes that, these days, all but the youngest, most ska-crazed rockers choose to deck themselves out in Versace gowns and Paul Smith suits instead of ratty cardigans, and that a generation of techno-sired artists don’t find Mr. Barry’s distance from the rock traditions especially troubling. Which is to say, Mr. Arnold’s collection is right on time. And the tracks are unerring. Aimee Mann, with her erotic plaintiveness, sings a slightly out-of-kilter “Nobody Does It Better,” her 60′s nostalgia supplanting Carly Simon’s original longings for the flowing 40′s. Shara Nelson, whose voice cuts across strings like a pen on porcelain, hits soul heaven on “Moonraker.” Pulp, which steals the record, approaches “All Time High” as the world’s grooviest love song. And Propellerheads and LTJ Bukem do amazingly subtle, rhythmic and pop-conscious things with, respectively, “The James Bond Theme” and Mr. Barry’s great “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.” Contributions by Chrissie Hynde, Iggy Pop, Leftfield-and David McAlmont’s intensely musical “Diamonds Are Forever” opener-shine as well.
“I wanted the record,” Mr. Arnold said, “to be like walking around Piccadilly Circus in 1996 with the memory of 1967 in my head.” Mission accomplished.